Author Archive for SarahRosengard

Celebrating 2011 in Science

In anticipation of 2012, Nature published its “2011 in review“, highlighting major strides setbacks in science. The past year witnessed several landmarks in pure science, such as the claim that moving neutrinos could surpass the speed of light, as well as noteworthy advances in applied science and in the innovative environment.

In applied science, 2011 saw advances in cost-efficient genome sequencing technology, which will improve diagnostics and provide insights in evolutionary history. More on the medicinal front, 2012 will be able to enjoy new drug treatments for hepatitis C, lupus and melanoma.

More fundamentally, the innovative environment has shifted along with important political and societal upheavals in the past year. As the Arab Spring exploded across the Middle East and northern Africa, scientists considered the coevolution of democracy and scientific research. The earthquake-driven tsunami that devastated Japan spurred worldwide backlashes against nuclear technology that may resonate with 2012’s choices in alternative energy. And the world’s realization of 7 billion came with heightened awareness that we may indeed be living in the Anthropocene, a new geological time period defined by the burden of human population.

As Nature highlights, 2011 leaves many imprints on the upcoming year. While innovation by nature hinges upon the ability to push boundaries, it also depends upon existing structures and precedents. Thus, science will have to wait as the Arab Spring nations slowly solidify their transitions. Clean energy may only grow so far as national communities are ideologically and financially prepared for it.

On the other hand, growing scientific and global awareness of the Anthropocene offers encouraging prospects for 2012. Changing perspectives on human environmental impact may open up new world concerns, new priorities for problem-solving and, ultimately, new pathways for innovation. What New Year’s resolutions can science make for the coming year?

Cleaning up the horse manure of the 21st century

December emerged within a whirlwind of dialogue on global preparation for climate change. On November 30th, an MIT audience of hundreds listened to Steven Chu’s perspectives on “The role of science, technology and innovation in solving the energy challenge.” Well-poised and direct on Kresge’s stage, the Secretary of Energy first contextualized the clean energy challenge within a historical timeline. Chu recounted the turnover from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, discussing how horse manure in city streets was a crucial impetus in the technological switch that revolutionized daily transportation. And returning to the modern nexus of wiggly hockey-stick diagrams, he provoked us to consider parallels between horse manure and greenhouse emissions.

Secretary Chu’s discussion occurred while much of global climate community was tuned into its latest conference in Durban, South Africa – COP17 – which convened from November 28 to December 9. As representatives carved out difficult paths to the Durban Platform, greenhouse mitigation and human adaptation comprised main demands, while concerns of technology sharing and intellectual property rights resonated among several Southern parties. As Chu’s audience considered the U.S. status on clean technology, a wider audience deliberated a wider definition of innovation.

In particular, COP17 witnessed remarkable innovations in the science-policy interface. As Nature highlighted, Climate Action Tracker played a notable role in delivering science to the political drawing board. A small group of specialized analysts, the organization translates policy decisions into environmental consequences through scientific models that couple together the Earth system and society’s choices. Their final analysis of the Durban Platform reported that the 2015 deadline for a new climate framework is too late, and given the continued decisions of governments, Earth’s climate will exceed current upper limits of a 2 °C temperature rise.

Perhaps Climate Action Tracker signals a new trend in the way both scientists and policy-makers think about climate models. Too often do the languages of scientific models and decision-makers just miss each other. Like Climate Action Tracker, Climate Interactive also endeavors to close this gap between models and policy here at MIT. In hopes of establishing a space for model sharing, the organization has released software that allows users of all backgrounds to design their own model experiments and understand the consequences of their own agendas.

Common to many complex struggles is the realization that problem-solving requires its different solvers to communicate on common ground in the first place. Thus, amidst conflicting dialogues on how the world should manage climate change, it is not surprising that the language of innovation increasingly alludes to the dialogue itself. Climate models, which have provided both impetus and points of contention for negotiators who want results but not the broad uncertainties of scientific predictions, are a growing demand for innovative communication.

In Environmental Science, Tapping into New Pools of Creativity

One evening a month, a group of thinkers convenes on the Charles River to discuss the sounds of melting glaciers over pizza and beer. A diverse coalition of researchers, journalists, exhibitors, sculptors, advocators and students, they converge upon a common thread: the challenge of conveying climate change science to the public eye.

Eli Kintisch calls these meetings “Climate/Art Pizza”. On a one-year journalism fellowship at MIT, Eli is the primary creator and host of these monthly pizza dinners in his own apartment. He has taken leave from his journalism position at Science to explore the synthesis between art and climate science. “I’m concerned that traditional journalism forms on climate are reaching a narrower audience than they should given the severity of the problem,” Eli says. Thus, his meetings explore ways art may open up new pathways for communication.

Each meeting centers on a different theme in climate science. At the latest meeting on November 27, the theme was cycles. Within the environment, several elements move through circular pathways; in the water cycle, for example, rain circulates within a closed loop among the atmosphere, land, and ocean. At the meeting, Penny Chisholm from MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering shared her own perspectives on cycles, including a published picture book on environmental science.

Following Penny’s talk, the agenda was brainstorming: how can art convey the science of environmental cycles? What forms of media can be employed, which senses evoked, which learning opportunities delivered? More fundamentally, how can these efforts tie to those issues in climate change most relevant to the public?

While these questions circulated through a Bostonian meeting, one wonders whether they concurrently resonated around the globe. Several other projects have creatively fused art and environmental science. For example, this October, the Center for Biological Diversity announced the latest world census by releasing a colorful line of contraceptives, “endangered species condoms”. 5000 global volunteers disseminated 250,000 condoms (www.biologicaldiversity.org) to alert the world of its 7 billion population landmark, and relate this number to biodiversity loss.

An example of an “endangered species condom” released by the Center for Biological diversity. (Courtesy of www.endangeredspecies.com, the Center for Biological Diversity)

An example of an “endangered species condom” released by the Center for Biological diversity. (Courtesy of www.endangeredspecies.com, the Center for Biological Diversity)

Eli highlighted another public expression of environmental science in art: roadside pillars in Adair County, Iowa demonstrate the progressive degradation of topsoil due to industrial agriculture. This visually direct exhibition provokes viewers to think about the environmental sustainability of agriculture in Iowa.

Pillars exhibition in Iowa conveying a clear loss in topsoil since the onset of industrial agriculture in the state. (Courtesy of boingboing.net)

Pillars exhibition in Iowa conveying a clear loss in topsoil since the onset of industrial agriculture in the state. (Courtesy of boingboing.net)

Such examples only begin to tap into the great pool of creativity in expressing environmental concerns. In the long run, hopefully both science and the public circle will no longer need to search far and wide to find each other.